|Dionis Cenuşa, Senior Contributor|
In her inaugural speech on December 24, 2020, Maia Sandu stressed that she would be "the president of European integration." Later, in discussion with the Moldovan diplomatic corps, she referred to the urgency of resetting relations with the EU, to transform the country and "anchor" it to the EU. Therefore, the EU's relationship is destined to become a reference point for Moldovan foreign policy in the next four years. At the same time, Brussels is fully interested in supporting Sandu's mandate in foreign policy, but even more in the country's domestic policy. On the one hand, the European institutions express an optimistic belief that the new President can turn the situation around when it comes to structural reforms. On the other hand, Maia Sandu needs the EU's moral authority and its financial assistance, to be able to demonstrate its political usefulness in the eyes of her voters. While the EU is looking for "success stories" in the region, President Sandu seeks to satisfy the public interest, strengthening her prestige at national and international level.
President Sandu's motivation for moving towards the EU
There is a conglomeration of reasons for President Sandu's interest in substantiating relations with Brussels. They start from the EU's resources, continue with the structure of Maia Sandu's electorate and end with the prioritization of the European vector in the light of the inevitable difficulties in relations with Russia.
First, the major coordinates of Moldova's reforms derive from the Association Agreement and political commitments to the EU. Any move forward depends to a significant extent on whether the relationship with the EU is healthy or not. The import of European aid has no alternative if the aim is to repair and accelerate the new-old reforms, including in the area of post-pandemic recovery. For this reason, President Sandu is seeking help in the appropriate place - in Brussels.
Second, Moldova's neighbors - Romania and Ukraine - are within the EU or are part of a regional process of European integration (3DCFTA, January 2021). This entourage predisposes to a larger pro-European logic, which guides Maia Sandu in her external actions.
Third, 27% of the vote for Maia Sandu, in the second round of the November 2020 elections, came from the diaspora, a large part of whom emigrated (temporarily or permanently) to EU countries. The loyalty of this category of voters has an extraordinary significance for President Sandu because it supplies her with public approval (especially on Facebook). In this sense, the positive reaction of the diaspora to the movement towards the EU acquires a psychological substratum with considerable impact for the political routine of President Sandu.
Fourth, the relationship with the EU is based not only on institutional dialogue but also on the political ties that Maia Sandu, as the leader of the opposition (2016-2020), developed with Brussels' political actors - the European People's Party. These contacts provide President Sandu with unconditional support within the European Parliament and other European institutions. Belonging to the European political ecosystem is a valuable political resource that provides political weight at home, vital for the rise of Maia Sandu's party - Action and Solidarity Party - to the status of the most influential political force in the country. That could eventually become a legacy of Maia Sandu's presidency.
Quinto, and the last primary reason for prioritizing the European vector, is the complicated relationship with Russia (IPN, December 2020). Together with cementing friendly relations with Romania and Ukraine, the energetic dialogue with the EU is crucial to compensate for the lack of success in foreign policy's eastern direction. Contacts with the US can also be beneficial. Still, the new American administration has excessively numerous domestic and foreign concerns. Therefore, the Moldovan case will enter into fierce competition for the attention of the decision-makers on the other side of the Atlantic. President Sandu has not articulated any strategy concerning Russia, and her administration does not have well-versed specialists in this field. In the absence of expertise and a concrete and feasible action plan to handle the relations with Moscow, the country risks not preventing the continuous deterioration of the relationship with Moscow. The first hot spot has become Maia Sandu's statements about Russian military troops in the Transnistrian region, distorted by many Russian officials, including President Vladimir Putin. Even if Sandu has voiced Russia's older international commitments to withdraw Russian forces, they need incorporation into a series of logical actions. Thus, the improvised reaction to influences from the East will become less likely. The second neuralgic point resides in the recent Moldovan Constitutional Court's decision, which ruled against the privileged status of the Russian language, which until 2018 had a legal roof to function as a language "for inter-ethnic communication" (FaraGhilimele, January 2021). The Russian Foreign Ministry blamed Maia Sandu for not keeping her elective promises regarding the observance of minority rights. Simultaneously, the Socialists, led by former Moldovan President Igor Dodon, accused Sandu of politically influencing the Court's decision. In reality, the request for a new Russian language approach came not from President Sandu, who is actively using herself the Russian language to communicate with the non-Romanian speaking population. Some parliamentarians outside Sandu's political party authored the emblematic initiative of revising the Russian language's status; one of whom (Octavia Țicu) is openly opting for Moldova's unification Romania.
The first visit to Brussels and the contents of the "suitcase" on return?
The display of EU openness was the primary diplomatic goal of President Sandu's first visit to the European capital. All the European institutions and the leaders of the main parliamentary groups - the European People's Party and Renew Europe - have contributed to setting a very dense agenda. Never before has a Moldovan president been so warmly received in Brussels. The excessive attention of European politics aimed to highlight the political weight of Maia Sandu's electoral and her role in bringing the country closer to the EU. President Sandu's images with the European decision-makers abounded the local public space, having a particular symbolic load for her voters at home and those in the diaspora. Some important results achieved thanks to President Sandu's trip to Brussels deserve attention.
First, institutional contacts between the Moldovan presidency and EU political offices have received an official resetting. As a result, communication with decision-makers in the EU's executive and legislative branches has taken on a new dimension. The efficiency of sending diplomatic-political messages from Chisinau to Brussels depends on this. Due to the presidency's low credibility in the period 2016-2020, contacts with the EU were if not cold, then too formal and timid, respectively.
The second important issue concerns the current dimension of bilateral relations. More precisely, the availability of non-reimbursable financial assistance has reappeared - EUR 21 million for police reform and EUR 15 million in budget support to mitigate the pandemic's effects under the "Resilience Contract". A careful study of this assistance's details indicates that the EU planned it for Moldova last year, but retained it until after the presidential election, for obvious political reasons. Compared to other states associated with the EU, Moldova receives less money. Thus, the EU's "Resilience Contract" for Georgia includes EUR 75 million in budget support. In Ukraine, EU assistance goes to the regions (EU4ResilientRegions) - EUR 30 million. As the above figures show, Maia Sandu's victory could not increase the EU's aid depending on various factors (3DCFTA, April 2020). The modest European resources available to Moldova result from a cycle of adverse events, which dates back to the rule of the oligarchic regime led by Vladimir Plahotniuc.
The third dimension concerns the testing of the ground for negotiations with the EU on future financing based on bilateral (the single bilateral support framework for 2021-2027) and multilateral foundations (funding for projects including “Post-2021 Deliverables” dedicated to the six EU countries. Eastern Partnership). The EU budget for the next seven years is already adopted (December 2020), totaling EUR 98.4 billion for the neighborhood (pre-accession funds for the Western Balkans and assistance to the Eastern Partnership) and the rest of the world. President Sandu's remarks on her return from Brussels show that the EU will decide in the coming months to distribute the money for bilateral assistance to third, including Moldova. If more financial sources are wanted for the country, the political situation in Chisinau needs urgent stabilization. President Sandu has two options - to appoint an effective government that would prepare the country for elections this fall or to contribute to the failure of the prime minister's nomination that would set the calendar of snap elections for spring-summer 2021. Any hesitations lead to the postponement of early elections, conflicting Sandu’s personal political calculus.
Ignoring the political crisis in Chisinau, but not the one in Tbilisi - why?
The dialogue between the EU and President Sandu is optimistic. However, the country's benefits in relation to the EU depend on President Sandu's success in domestic policy. Therefore, awareness of the institutional limitations coupled with Maia Sandu's mandate (EESC, November 2020) is essential for calibrating internal and external expectations. Neglecting the constitutional reality in which President Sandu navigates can push the country on a risky track. European officials have, at least moral, authority over Maia Sandu to exert a positive influence to prevent the escalation of Moldova's political crisis (3DCFTA, January 2021). Thus, the EU can help her not make mistakes while pursuing the noble goal of unleashing the country of corruption. The goal excuses mean very rarely or never, primarily if the aspirations pursue to build lasting democratic institutions.
On her return from Brussels, President Sandu suggested that EU actors know Moldovan realities well (President.md, January 2020). That seems not fully convincing, as none of Sandu's interlocutors mentioned the political crisis in Chisinau, which is also due to President Sandu's slow decision to nominate a candidate for prime minister. The Sandu-PAS tandem calculations are clear - to provoke early elections and clean up the Parliament of corrupt representatives as early as possible to reinvest the electoral credit obtained by her in the 2020 presidential elections. However, in achieving this goal, President oscillates dangerously on the margins of the constitutional permissiveness. A prime minister's appointment is entirely the President's responsibility, meaning that it is hard to blame the opposition for Maia Sandu's inaction. Not in this case.
Even though the political situation in Chisinau is difficult, European officials have not expressed any public concern at the meetings with Maia Sandu. That indicates a not entirely accurate understanding of Moldovan realities among European officials. Alternatively, Brussels does not want to object to President Sandu's actions, who is in no hurry to appoint a new prime minister. The attitude towards the situation in Moldova and implicitly regarding the direct role of Maia Sandu in overcoming the crisis differs considerably from the EU’s agitation around the events in Georgia. A few days after Maia Sandu's departure, Brussels received the President of Georgia, Salome Zurabishvili. Compared to an easygoing approach to political developments in Moldova, the head of European diplomacy, Joseph Borrell spoke in terms that are more trenchant with the Georgian President about the political crisis in the Caucasian country, where the main opposition parties boycott the majority-controlled Parliament with oligarchic ties (" The Georgia Dream”).
Too many political hopes tie to Maia Sandu's presidency; apparently, for this reason the EU seems to lean towards a tolerant attitude towards her.
In lieu of conclusion…
President Sandu's visit to Brussels signals a new dynamic in relations with the EU. The country's foreign policy is being re-Europeanized at a rapid pace. Against the background of this qualitative change, Moldova can promote its cause more efficiently and plausibly in Brussels, including in terms of financial assistance over the next decade. Maia Sandu has robust contacts within the EU at hand. The European institutions want to help Moldova reduce Russia's geopolitical influence, which has already begun to undermine Sandu's presidency.
The EU must avoid mistakes from the past when it tolerated deviations from the rules of the game. Instead of tolerance, European partners must support Maia Sandu's involvement in searching for viable political solutions, which would put an end to the current parliament via early elections. The mediation of the Georgian crisis serves as a useful example of Brussels' pro-active position. Proper care of President Sandu-EU interdependence can increase the European vector's popularity in Moldova, and its neglect can have the opposite effect. Finally, the pronounced association with the EU increases Maia Sandu's liability for domestic policy, but also the EU's responsibility for the gestures of its main political partner in Moldova.
Areas of research: European Neighborhood Policy, EU-Moldova relationship, EU's foreign policy and Russia, migration and energy security.
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IPN publishes in the Op-Ed rubric opinion pieces submitted by authors not affiliated with our editorial board. The opinions expressed in these articles do not necessarily coincide with the opinions of our editorial board.